90th anniversary of 1918 German revolution

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Below we are publishing two articles to mark the 90th anniversary of seven protestors being killed during the November 3, 1918, demonstration of mutinous sailors and striking workers in Kiel, northern Germany. This clash transformed a naval mutiny into the November revolution that challenged the very existence of capitalism in Germany and throughout Europe.

When the German workers entered the stage of history

By Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party

The current economic convulsions of world capitalism are recognised by some as “the greatest loss of wealth in history”. This will in turn usher in a convulsive political situation in the world and not least in the ‘old continent’ of Europe, which could lead over time to the same kind of social upheavals as we saw then.

Capitalist commentators, who have derided the very idea of socialist change, and particularly the dreaded word ‘revolution’, are now contemplating such an outcome if world capitalism should lurch into a slump. Martin Wolf warns in the Financial Times that this would be a recipe for “xenophobia, nationalism and revolution. As it is, such outcomes are conceivable.”

This incomplete revolution was, at the time, second only to the victorious Russian revolution that had taken place only a year previously. In a sense, for present-day socialists, Marxists and the labour movement, a close examination of the processes involved in the German revolution is as important as even the mighty Russian Revolution – the single greatest event in human history. Unlike in Russia, China, Spain or even Portugal in the 1970s, this was a revolution in an advanced industrial country, with Britain, the most advanced at that stage.

The laws of revolution worked out by Marx and deepened by Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks in the course of the Russian revolution retain all their validity for socialists and Marxists today. But in Germany, unlike Russia, the immense power of the organised working class was overwhelming. The German capitalists were much more powerful than the weak Russian landlords and capitalists.

Yet faced with the stirrings of revolt in the war-weary German masses, the capitalists – whose system was crowned by the semi-dictatorial regime of the Kaiser (Emperor) – felt the ground tremble beneath their feet. They sought at first to deploy force and repression against the threatening revolution.

Growth

However, economically this was no backward country. In 40 years from 1871 to 1910, the proportion of the population living in cities had increased from one third to two thirds. The working class was the overwhelming dominant force with almost nine million industrial workers, 12.5 million workers in all. They, in the “broad sense of the term, including women and children, made up between 67 and 68 per cent of the total population” [Pierre Broué]. This working class was concentrated in huge cities such as Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and Cologne.

Alongside these were 3.3 agricultural workers, labouring on large estates, of which 369 were more than 1,000 hectares in size – a quarter of the whole cultivated area. In these facts was posed the possibility of an alliance between the urban working class, the poor peasants and the rural working class. Moreover, the German working class – certainly on the eve of the First World War – was not as impoverished or culturally deprived as those found in economically backward countries, even Russia itself.

It had, through the Herculean labour of generations of workers, built up at that stage the most powerful organisation of the working class in the world, formally standing under the banner of Marxism and the (Second) Socialist International of workers. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) had more than a million members in 1914. One left leader, Ruth Fischer (later a leader of the Communist Party), wrote later that for many workers “the German social democracy became a way of life… Its ideas, its relations, its attitudes were formed out of this integration of his person with his collective.”

The SPD had 90 daily newspapers, employing 267 full-time journalists and 3,000 manual and clerical workers. Overall, it probably had about 15,000 full-timers, a “virtual state within a state”. And yet it is an irony of history that this very colossal political machine because of its leadership at a decisive moment acted as a huge obstacle to the evident desire of the masses to overthrow capitalism and establish a socialist workers and peasants’ republic, as their Russian brothers and sisters had done just a year before.

It was the ‘long boom’ in the decades before the First World War that, while organisationally strengthening German social democracy, had rotted its ideological foundations. The leadership and their supporters acquired the habit of compromise and negotiation within the framework of capitalism; not a sharp break but the ‘inevitability of gradualism’ was the way to achieve socialism. Something similar also happened to parties like the Labour Party in Britain or the SPD in the last few decades. From workers’ parties at the bottom, albeit with pro-capitalist leaderships, they have been transformed into outright capitalist parties. The SPD in 1918 formally adhered still to the historic aim of socialism.

But in the revolution it acted as an enormous bulwark in preventing this. Faced with revolution, the German capitalists, utterly discredited by the slaughter of the First World War, were forced to lean on these social democrat leaders to derail the revolution again and again. Not able to use their own power and forces, the capitalist counter-revolution took a ‘democratic’ form buttressed by the killing of workers and massacres by the police, army and right-wing nationalist and fascist murder gangs.

The great Marxist Rosa Luxemburg – even before Lenin – had recognised the political degeneration of the leadership of the SPD and the role it was likely to play. She politically opposed them within the SPD, counterposing to its heavy conservatism the actual movement of the working class spectacularly revealed in the 1905-07 Russian revolution. Tragically, however, while emphasising the ‘spontaneous’ movement of the working class as the mainspring of the revolution, she also neglected to form a separate and distinct Marxist organisation in opposition to these leaders. This was to play a fatal role both before but particularly after the floodgates of revolution opened in November 1918.

SPD leaders support war

The ‘mole of revolution’ burrowed below the surface during the First World War. The German social-democratic leadership had shamefully abandoned their class and international duty by voting for ‘war credits’ in supporting its own ruling class on the infamous 4 August 1914, thereby taking full responsibility for the carnage that followed. Not so the immortal Karl Liebknecht, who voted against (although initially he had not done so) on 2 December 1914. He was to be joined by Otto Ruhle in March 1915, which meant that only two of the original 110 SPD Reichstag (parliament) representatives eventually voted against the war.

For this, Liebknecht was persecuted, slandered and jailed but this only served to enhance his attraction to the working class, both in the trenches and in Germany itself. His famous aphorism, “the enemy is at home”, resounded throughout the working class, in Germany, Russia and elsewhere too. It acquired particular resonance as the suffering of the working class and the mound of corpses grew.

Soon, the pro-war hysteria evaporated as the working class were called upon to pay a terrible price for what social-democratic renegades called ‘war socialism’; rationing of butter, meat and eggs was introduced. The food allocation to workers was one third of the necessary calories, it was estimated. This led, as in Russia, to mass demonstrations, both for peace and against starvation rations meted out by the authorities.

The SPD leaders were up to their necks in support of the war, which in turn led to mounting opposition within their ranks. The pressure of the masses was reflected even amongst the ‘left’ leaders of social democracy. Some of these leaders, like Karl Kautsky and Paul Hilferding, had opportunistically not opposed the war and were hostile to Liebknecht and Luxemburg because they refused to ‘respect’ the SPD constitution. For this, Liebknecht was condemned as an incorrigible ‘sectarian’. But Liebknecht and Luxemburg, who although in ill health was also jailed, defended the honour of the German working class and reflected their historic interests at the outbreak of war.

Nevertheless, under mass pressure, leaders like Kautsky and Co were compelled to first of all oppose the SPD leadership, in a half-hearted fashion, and then were forced out of its ranks. This led to the formation in 1917 of the USPD (Independent SPD) which took an estimated 120,000 members with it compared to 170,000 that formally stayed under the SPD banner. The USPD was then a manifestation of a ‘new mass workers’ party’, which The Socialist campaigns for now. However, today the main forces for such a party are likely to come from outside the Labour Party, which is empty because of its pro-capitalist character.

The USPD leaders had a halfway-house political position, sometimes using very radical, ‘revolutionary’ phraseology but were passive in deeds, refusing to go the whole way in the struggle against capitalism. When such a formation develops, it comes into being usually against the wishes of those who are compelled to ‘lead’ it. It reflects the increased radicalisation of the working class, which these leaders are forced to reflect in their programme and phraseology, but in an imprecise ‘centrist’ fashion.

For instance, in the Portuguese revolution Mário Soares, a lawyer until then, flew in from Paris in April 1974 to form the Portuguese Socialist Party (PSP), which had been mainly a signboard up to then. When the masses poured into this party, they demanded socialism and Marxist policies. The same thing happened in Greece with the formation of the Socialist party (PASOK), led by Andreas Papandreou. Soares was compelled at the congress of the PSP to declare that those “opposed to Marxism” would have to be “shown the door”. This did not stop him later, as the revolutionary tide ebbed, acting as a conduit for the pressure of capitalism, via the right-wing German social democracy in derailing the Portuguese revolution. The majority of the USPD’s leaders were to occupy a similar position in the German revolution.

Gathering Storm

The signs of the coming storm were evident in 1916. Between February and December, almost a quarter of a million German soldiers fell before Verdun. Great discontent at the course of the war was reinforced by strikes for better food in Berlin and elsewhere. Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolshevik leaders of the Russian Revolution looked enthusiastically to the imminent German revolution. From a thousand platforms, they had declared both before and after the October revolution that the only salvation for Russia was a successful revolution in Germany. They spent all their efforts into supporting those forces that were driving in this direction.

The cost to the German working class is shown by the number of victims in the war. Between March and November 1918, when the revolution broke out, 192,447 people were killed in the war, over 400,000 were missing or captured and 860,000 were wounded. Added to this were 300,000 more civilian deaths. The desire to put an end to the slaughter fuelled the demands for revolution. This is why Marxists sometimes describe war as the ‘midwife of revolution’.

And the revolutionary wave rose ever-higher. Leo Jogiches, one of the leaders of the Sparticists – the left organisation around Rosa Luxemburg,– described the situation in early 1918: “Civil war could be sensed in the air… Like a revolutionary breeze, a certain readiness but no-one knew what to do. After each clash with the police, we heard people saying: ‘Comrades, we should come back with arms tomorrow.’” When Ebert, the leader of the SPD spoke at a public meeting, he declared: “Victory is the dearest wish of all Germans.” He was openly called a ‘scab’ and a ‘traitor’ by the crowd of strikers gathered to hear him and was forced to hastily declare that the ‘victory’ was a reference to their economic demands!

Those capitalist writers and historians who inveigh against the idea of social revolution totally ignore the monstrous and huge costs which revolutions end. The costs of war – particularly the first and second world wars – when weighed against the alleged ‘unacceptable price’ of revolutionary change are much greater. In Russia and Germany, the numbers killed in the revolutions were small compared to the slaughter of the First World War – five million workers and peasants in Russia alone killed or injured – which the Russian Revolution ended. Weighed on the scales of humanity and history, there is no doubt that a fundamental economic and social change in society – socialist revolution – is less ‘costly’ than a continuation of capitalism, with its countless victims of war and economic catastrophe, especially if the working class has a clear, farsighted leadership and party.

If the glorious opportunities – not one but at least four or five – between 1917 and 1923 had been seized in Germany, the working class and humanity would have been saved terrible suffering. A democratic workers’ state in Germany with its immense industrial and cultural resources would have linked up with the young workers’ state in Russia, which in turn would have spread to Central Europe while resoundingly knocking at the doors of the other countries of Europe as well. The real possibility of a socialist united states of Europe being established would have prevented the rise of the Nazis and of Stalinism which flowed from the isolation of the Russian Revolution, in particular because of the subsequent defeat in Germany.

The unmistakeable signs of the approaching revolution were clearly unfolding in September 1918. The spark that lit the fire, however, came in October with the uprising of the sailors of the North Sea fleet. An earlier uprising had been met with repression with two sailors’ leaders being shot. It is not an accident that in a number of revolutions, the navy is to be found in the vanguard. This was so in the 1905-07 Russian revolution, the Spanish revolution and even in Britain with the Invergordon mutiny because of pay cuts following the crisis of 1929-31.

The reason why the ‘virus’ of revolution can often strike first there is because the ships of the navy are often ‘floating factories’. They are very hierarchical, with a rigid division between the different classes – from the bridge down to the engine rooms. This, married to brutal discipline, can provide the seed bed for revolution.

The events of November are well described in detail elsewhere (see the article by Robert Bechert below and Pierre Broué’s book). The sailors’ revolt resulted in a revolutionary wave sweeping from one end of Germany to the other, which compelled the Kaiser – “we must sacrifice the Kaiser to save the country” – to bolt over the border to the Netherlands, thereby relegating the German monarchy to history. More importantly, as in Russia, “the slogan of the workers’ councils became a potent material force” [Pierre Broué]. In Berlin, Karl Radek, a Marxist leader, on the day that Karl Liebknecht was released from prison, which was greeted by mass demonstrations, wrote: “I have never seen anything like it. Late in the evening, workers and red soldiers were still parading. The world revolution had come, [the Russian revolution’s] isolation was at an end.”

Some commentators today, joined by ‘super-wise’ but shallow ‘left’ historians, argue that the chances of a successful German revolution were faint and that the workers’ councils which were created were nothing of the kind, and did not bear comparison to the soviets created in Russia. This is totally false. Indeed, as Pierre Broué pointed out in his monumental work, The German Revolution, 1917-1923, the chances of a German revolution appeared on 9 November 1918 to be “more serious than those of the Russian soviet revolution of February 1917”.

The left – revolutionaries, left independents, international communists and the Sparticists – had significant support in many of the councils and a period of dual power ensued. But the social-democratic leaders and the traditional organisations of the working class still had colossal authority in the aftermath of the revolution. Even in Russia, the working class firstly took the ‘line of least resistance’ and mainly supported the Mensheviks in the first period. In Germany, alongside the social democrats was also a powerful trade union apparatus not present on the same scale in Russia. In Berlin, the workers’ councils elected one delegate per thousand votes in the big factories and one delegate per part of a thousand elsewhere. What is true is that these councils– unlike in Russia between February and October 1917– were not sustained for the whole period of the revolution. This is because the capitalists and the social-democratic leaders learnt from Russia and did everything to prevent a similar situation in Germany.

As an alternative to the slogan ‘All power to the soviets’, they counterposed ‘All power to the whole people’, attempting to undermine the power of the working class. In practise, this meant that the power that the working class had conquered in November was effectively handed back to the cowering German capitalists hiding behind these ‘leaders’.

They counterposed to the idea of a ‘council-type’ republic the idea of electing a ‘national assembly’ (parliament). General Groener, chief of the army, later declared: “There existed no other party [other than the SPD] which had enough influence upon the masses to enable the re-establishment of governmental power with the help of the army.”

Nor were the ‘centrist’ leaders of the USPD prepared to go the whole way. This did not appear to be the case in the first instance because of the extremely radical, if not ‘revolutionary’, terminology used by the leaders of this party. But the German revolution in its first period developed at breathtaking speed – more frenetic even than the Russian Revolution. Such was the sweep of events that Lenin and Trotsky – mistakenly as it later proved – believed that the colossal movement of the German working class would conquer even without a mass communist party at its head.

The capitalists were initially forced to make concessions; for instance, the granting of the eight-hour working day, an amnesty for political offences, the lifting of the state of siege and censorship, freedom of opinion and the right of women to vote. But already, they were preparing to strike back. As with Lenin in Russia, hundreds of thousands of leaflets and countless newspaper articles vilified the left leaders – particularly Rosa Luxemburg, ‘bloody Rosa’, and Karl Liebknecht. Their ideas were maliciously distorted but Karl Liebknecht turned his back on the parliamentary babblers and went to the working class who massively supported his and Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas.

Revolutionary party

There were, as Trotsky pointed out, many similarities between the German revolution and what had happened in Russia. But there were also big differences, not just in tempo but in the absence in Germany of that priceless weapon which the Russian workers had, a mass revolutionary communist party – the Bolsheviks – with a clear and farsighted leadership. Heroic efforts were made to create such a party in the heat of the revolution, which culminated after many cul-de-sacs and mistakes, in the formation of a mass communist party following a split in the USPD at its Halle congress in October 1920.

But this only came after defeats and setbacks, notably the uprising of January 1919. Such movements are to be seen in all revolutions, particularly when the masses, through heroic efforts, seem to have made a revolution only to see their hopes and gains gradually eroded, and they decide to act. Such was the mood that led to the July days in Russia in 1917. A similar development took place in the Spanish revolution in the May events in Barcelona in 1937. Lenin opposed the July demonstration because the rest of Russia was not as prepared as the Petrograd workers to overthrow the government. The Bolsheviks led it in order to mitigate the damage which flowed from this. A counter-revolutionary red-baiting wave that flowed from this forced Lenin and many Bolshevik leaders underground.

In 1919, unfortunately, Karl Liebknecht – but not Rosa Luxemburg – mistakenly went along with the uprising. What followed was an inevitable defeat, repression, an orgy of bloodletting and, in particular and most tragically, the beheading of the German revolution through the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg – the ‘brain’ of the revolution – and Karl Liebknecht, its most heroic figure.

This was not the end of the revolution but it represented the end of the first phase. From this, Germany was plunged into an incredible process of revolution and counter-revolution – actual ‘civil war’ in the Ruhr with countless victims – the split in the USPD and the formation of a mass communist party, the Kapp putsch defeated by an immense general strike of the working class, the March 1921 ultra-left general strike and the decisive year of 1923.

In future articles we will comment on some of these developments – in particular 1923 for the lessons it holds for us today. In the meantime, on the anniversary of these great events – the lessons of which are so numerous we have only touched on them here – young people and workers who wish to acquaint themselves with the great and momentous events in Germany then and its relevance for today should consult amongst other sources the magnificent work of Pierre Broué, ‘The German Revolution 1917-1923’, only recently published in English.

November 1918 – five years of revolution and counter-revolution begin

By Robert Bechert, CWI

As capitalism enters probably its worse crisis since the 1930s, discussion is already developing as to what will be the economic, social and political impact. As banks and stock markets fell, the spectre arose of another Great Depression, lodged in popular memory as a period of economic disaster, deprivations, bitter struggles, civil wars and, of course, the rise of fascism, particularly in Germany and other countries like Spain and Austria.

This coincides with the 90th anniversary in Germany of the overthrow of the Kaiser and the beginning of the 1918-23 revolution. The issue of ‘Weimar’, meaning the history and fate of the first German republic born in 1918-19, has never completely disappeared in post-1945 Germany. The famous revolutionary martyrs of the beginning of the revolution, Karl Liebknecht and particularly Rosa Luxemburg, are not forgotten. Oskar Lafontaine, the co-leader of Germany’s third biggest party Die Linke (The Left), for example, mentioned both in his speech to its first congress last May; although he drew a false comparison between the revolutionary socialist Liebknecht and the pro-capitalist Willy Brandt..

The media picture often painted is that the 1930s economic collapse almost directly lead to Hitler’s victory – sometimes the hyper-inflation of 1923 is thrown in as well as a reason for the Nazis’ success. However, as Leon Trotsky first explained, this was not the case. The immediate key sources of Hitler’s triumph lay in the refusal of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) leadership to break with capitalism and the later ultra-leftism of the Communist International leadership which led it, in practice, to reject a united front of workers’ organisations against fascism.

However, as in most attempts to mislead, there is a grain of truth in the idea that one source of Hitler’s success was the 1923 crisis. But 1923 is not simply the widely known hyper-inflation. Fundamentally it is the story of a missed opportunity. Germany 1923 saw the end of the revolution that had begun in 1918 but also was the one occasion, so far, when a majority of the working class in an industrialised, imperialist country supported a revolutionary Marxist party, in the shape then of the German Communist Party (KPD).

German labour’s international role

Already for many years Marxists had seen Germany as a key country, both because of its very strong, Marxist-led, workers’ movement, and because of its economic power. Despite its defeat in the First World War and the subsequent reparations, Germany was still the decisive country in Europe. In the early 1920s Berlin was the fourth most populous city in the world and, internationally, the largest industrial city.

When, in 1918, the German November revolution began, almost exactly a year after the Bolsheviks had come to power, Lenin was ecstatic. Krupskaya, his wife, later wrote that that Lenin was “completely carried away by the news” and that “the days of the first October anniversary were the happiest days in his life”. Not only because of the overthrow of the Kaiser and the probable end of the First World War, but also because Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks understood that the ultimate fate of the Russian revolution was tied to the success of the socialist revolution in the rest of Europe, particularly Germany.

As the German and Austrian-Hungarian revolutions began Lenin wrote to the Soviet leadership that “the Russian proletariat is following events with the keenest attention and enthusiasm. Now even the blindest workers in the various countries will see that the Bolsheviks were right in basing their whole tactics on the support of the world workers’ revolution”.

But, as we bitterly know, the German revolution did not succeed and, instead of the creation of a socialist society, capitalism continued. Not only did this failure result in the horrors of fascism and the Second World War, it also opened the way to the victory of Stalinism in Russia and ultimately the complete undermining of the gains of the Russian revolution.

Alongside its historical importance in helping set the course of the twentieth century, the story of the German revolution between 1918 and 1923 contains many important lessons for Marxists today. It is, so far, the only example of a revolution unfolding over a number of years in a modern, industrial country and can illustrate many questions of programme, strategy and tactics that will face Marxists in the more stormy times we are entering into. In particular these questions centre around how a mass Marxist party can develop, how it can win majority support in the working class and, ultimately, what it should do when it reaches that position.

The 1914 Turning Point

ALONGSIDE GERMANY’S economic strength a key element in this revolution was the power of its workers’ movement. Before the 1914-18 war the SPD was internationally seen as a model and was the leading party in the Second International, which then fundamentally comprised Marxist parties. The SPD had paved the way in building massive working class organisations that, formally at least, had the aim of overthrowing capitalism. Rejecting the “revisionist efforts” to formally commit the party to simply attempting to reform capitalism, the 1901 SPD congress, for example, condemned attempts “to supplant the policy of the conquest of power by overcoming our enemies with a policy of accommodation to the existing order”. Organisationally the SPD enjoyed massive growth. After emerging from 12 years of illegally in 1890 the SPD’s vote increased in every national election, reaching 4.25 million (34.7%) in 1912. The following year its individual membership peaked at 1,085,900.

However the SPD’s revolutionary heritage was being undermined by a combination of illusions sowed by that period’s economic growth and, paradoxically, the year by year growth of the SPD itself. Most of the leading layers within the SPD and trade unions began to assume that the movement would continue to progress almost automatically until it won a majority and that step-by-step reforms would steadily improve workers’ lives. Over time this led to the de facto abandonment of the expectation that crisis would grip the system, and of a revolutionary perspective, as the majority of the leadership thought that capitalism would carry on generally steadily developing.

It was the outbreak of the war that brought out into open that the majority of the SPD leadership had clearly adopted a pro-capitalist position and would, in future, oppose a socialist revolution. This was the essential meaning of the turning point of August 4, 1914, when the SPD voted to support ‘their’ side in this inter-imperialist war waged by what were, at best, only semi-democracies.

The possibility of war had been widely discussed for years in the workers’ movement, but what was a complete shock was that in most combatant countries the parties of the Second International immediately decided to support their ‘own’ side, with the only exceptions being in Russia, Bulgaria and Serbia That the SPD decided to support this war, unlike its opposition to the 1870 Prussian-led occupation of France, and collaborated with the government, was a stunning blow that effectively marked the end of that party’s claim to be revolutionary. This was a decisive step towards the SPD leaders’ integration into the capitalist system and prepared the way for the openly counter-revolutionary role they played after 1918.

But this was not entirely a bolt from the blue. Already before 1914 there had been a sharpening political struggle within the SPD. Rosa Luxemburg, in this period, became the leading opponent of the growing reformist, non-revolutionary, trends within the party. By 1914 the SPD was divided into three tendencies: the openly reformist wing; the so-called centre (led by Kautsky); and the radicals (i.e. the Marxist left) led by Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and others. But, unlike the Bolsheviks in their struggle between 1903 and 1912 in the Russian Social Democracy, Luxemburg did not draw together the Marxist wing into a coherent opposition that systematically fought both for its ideas and to build support. Tragically this contributed to their weakness at the beginning of the revolution in 1918 and to the subsequent lost opportunities and defeats.

Growing opposition to war

Right from 1914 there was opposition to the SPD leaders’ pro-war line from amongst many activists defending the party’s up to then traditional socialist internationalist position. But, for a time, they were swamped and relatively isolated by the patriotic wave that initially swept all the combatant countries and faced increasing repression from both the SPD leadership and the military authorities. Furthermore the internationalists were not particularly well linked together in terms of a common, clear programme or activities. Partly the anti-war SPD members had been hit by a new experience, hardly any expected the SPD to be pro-war, and at worst many left wingers thought the SPD leadership would try to be ‘neutral’. Lenin, at first, did not believe the news that the SPD had voted in favour of the war. But the SPD left’s lack of political and organisational coherence made it far more difficult to respond.

Nevertheless as it became clear that the war would not be a short one, as news spread of the horrific slaughter of trench warfare and as food shortages developed at home, opposition to the war mounted. Relativity soon protests against both the war and its effects, particularly on prices and sometimes drastic cuts in food supplies, began to develop on the streets, in workplaces and in parliament. In the SPD and trade unions struggles and splits developed. By 1916 strikes were taking place on the issues of food supplies and wages and, after the May 1 arrest of the left anti-war SPD MP Karl Liebknecht, there was a 55,000 strong protest strike in Berlin. In December 1914 Liebknecht had been the first out of the 110 SPD MPs to vote against the war. A year later 20 SPD MPs voted against and 24 abstained.

Opposition to the war received an enormous boost from the 1917 Russian revolution, both the February overthrow of Tsarism and October’s Bolshevik victory. Partly this was because one of the main justifications the right wing SPD leaders give for supporting the war was the threat from Tsarist Russia, an even more undemocratic state than Imperial Germany. The February revolution’s sweeping away of the Tsar and the winning of democratic rights in Russia undermined the SPD leaders’ arguments, but significantly this did not change their support for the war.

Immediately for many German workers Russia became an example of overthrowing a monarchy and establishing a republic. In particular the ‘soviets’ (councils) formed by the Russian workers, soldiers and peasants became an example. The strikes of around 300,000 workers in April 1917, particularly in Leipzig, saw the first formation of workers’ councils (called Räte) in Germany. Alongside a growing radicalisation amongst workers, unrest was spreading within the military with sailors forming a secret organisation. The appeal of the Russian revolution grew enormously after the October revolution, when power passed into the hands of Bolshevik-led soviets. A key factor in this was the Bolsheviks’ consistent policy of consciously appealing to workers in the rest of Europe, particularly in Germany, to follow the Russian workers’ example of winning democratic rights, ending the war, and overthrowing capitalism.

Against this background the January 1918 strikes were even more widespread. The slogans of ‘Peace, Freedom, Bread’ were close to the Bolsheviks’ ‘Peace, Land, Bread’ and in Berlin half a million workers struck for five days in protest at the government’s annexationist demands at the Brest-Litovsk peace talks with Soviet Russia. Significantly the SPD leaders, while saying they supported workers’ economic demands, still argued that they should work for ‘victory’ in the world war.

Development of the Left

ALMOST FROM THE war’s beginning the anti-war left faced obstacles. Alongside the impact of being largely initially caught by surprise, the anti-war left saw both the state and the SPD leadership moving against them using censorship, military call up and repression from the state and within the SPD a determined drive to silence opposition. More fundamentally the question was what lessons and conclusions needed to be drawn from this turning point of the SPD’s transformation from a weapon to be used to overthrow capitalism into an instrument to that was seeking to secure capitalism. This was a new experience in the workers’ movement, while there had been examples of individuals rejecting the idea of fighting for a socialist revolution and others openly supporting capitalism, this conversion of the bulk of the Socialist International’s parties was then unprecedented.

What was needed was a clear programme and a clear approach towards those workers who still supported the SPD out of a mixture of past loyalty, hopes that it would be still be an instrument for change the working class and not fully understanding the issues posed by the SPD’s transformation.

But the past failure to organise the revolutionary elements within the SPD made it more difficult to draw the necessary political and organisational conclusions. The February 1916 publication, in Switzerland, of Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘Junius’ pamphlet had a big impact on the anti-war left in Germany. However in his review of the pamphlet Lenin, while saying that “on the whole it is… a splendid Marxist work”, commented that it gave a “picture of a lone man” struggling and that unfortunately the German left, working in a semi-dictatorship, suffered from a “lack of compact illegal organisation”.

January 1916 saw a meeting of supporters of Die Internationale – the paper Luxemburg had helped launch – adopt her thesis on the war and establish the Gruppe Internationale, which rapidly became known as the Spartacists, after the series of Spartacus Letters they issued from 1916 onwards.

Luxemburg feared that organising an independent revolutionary organisation could lead to isolation from broad masses that still looked to SPD (and later, after it was founded, the USPD). But while Marxists had to avoid creating a sectarian barrier between themselves and the broader working class, non-organisation was not the answer. Without organisation there would be no arena where ideas and experiences could be discussed, proposals formulated and implemented in a concerted way, Luxemburg, reacting from the way in which the SPD’s organisation had become a bureaucratic obstacle to workers’ struggle, believed that when workers were in struggle the necessary political clarity and organisation could spontaneously develop.

The growing opposition to the war and anger at what was correctly seen as the SPD leaders’ betrayal was reflected in struggles in the SPD. While the SPD leadership had passed over to the side of the ruling class, within its ranks were still many who supported the party’s Marxist traditions and anti-war policy.

These tensions were also reflected at the SPD’s very top, in its parliamentary fraction. After less than two years into the war 20 dissidents were expelled from the parliamentary fraction. The divisions in the SPD continued to grow until, in April 1917, the split was formalised with the establishment of the left-wing and anti-war Independent Social Democratic Party, the USPD. This was provoked by the expulsion of anti-war oppositionists from the SPD the previous January, after they had organised a national conference. The new party took between a quarter and a third of the SPD membership. Its strength varied from area to area: in Berlin, Leipzig and four other areas, the entire SPD district organisational structure joined the USPD. The new party had about half its membership concentrated in Berlin, Leipzig and the Düsseldorf-Elberfeld area.

Politically the USPD was a very mixed formation. It included representatives of the pre-war reformist wing, like Bernstein, who were against the war from a pacifist viewpoint. Kautsky, a leading representative of the pre-war Centre tendency, was also a member. At the same time the USPD included many who were moving in a revolutionary direction, which was the reason why Luxemburg, Liebknecht and the Gruppe Internationale joined it.

Suddenly, very rapidly the situation changed in mid-1918. The failure of the German army’s spring offensive and the arrival of growing numbers of US troops convinced the military leadership that the war could not be won. On September 29 they requested that the government ask for a truce. Not wanting to take political responsibly for admitting the war was lost, and wanting to use the parliamentary leaders as a cover, the generals gave up their dictatorial rule. The first ever German government formally responsible to parliament rather than the Kaiser was formed which then, in mid-October, asked US president Woodrow Wilson to help negotiate a truce. Significantly, in an open break with its past, the SPD supplied two ministers, one also being the vice-chair of the trade union movement, to sit in this capitalist coalition government, headed by Price Max von Baden.

November revolution

THE SPARK THAT set the revolution off was a naval mutiny in Wilhelmshaven that spread to Kiel when sailors refused to engage in a meaningless last battle with the British navy. This led to a clash in Kiel on November 3 when seven demonstrators were killed and many injured. As the sailors sent emissaries throughout Germany, the revolutionary upheaval spread throughout the country within days, with workers’, soldiers’ and sailors’ councils being formed in many cities, towns and ports.

Events moved rapidly. November 9 saw the SPD leaders reluctantly declare a republic and, after von Baden’s resignation, agree to his proposal that the SPD leader Friedrich Ebert become chancellor (prime minister). The very next day Ebert accepted the offer from the new army chief, General Groener, of a “common front against Bolshevism.” Desperately the SPD sought to find ways to control the situation. Understanding the revolutionary mood they sought to appease the working class and rebelling military rank and file while trying to ensure that the capitalist system continued. Desperate to give the appearance of being revolutionary the SPD-led government formed the next day took the name ‘Rat der Volksbeauftragten’ (RdV, ‘Council of People’s Commissars’), which could be translated as exactly the same name as the Bolshevik government in Soviet Russia. But while the name was virtually the same there was a fundamental difference between the SPD government working to save capitalism and the Bolshevik government striving to end it internationally.

At the same time the SPD moved to try to neutralise the left, under the slogan ‘unity of the working class’, by involving the USPD in the new government by giving it three People’s Commissars, the same number as the SPD. The SPD even hinted that Liebknecht, newly released from prison, would be ‘welcome’ in the government, something that he correctly refused. The USPD leaders had the illusion that they were entering the government “in order to safeguard the gains of the socialist revolution”. At best the USPD leaders were indulging in wishful thinking, as the SPD leaders had already made clear that, while they could still use socialist phrases, their aim was to safeguard capitalism by preventing the Russian October revolution being repeated in Germany.

The SPD leaders had a conscious policy to prevent the overthrow of capitalism. On the eve of the Kaiser’s abdication Ebert, the SPD chair, complained that “if the Kaiser doesn’t abdicate the social revolution is unavoidable. But I don’t want it; indeed I hate it like sin”. Using the prestige of the SPD, still seen by many German workers as ‘their’ party, the SPD leaders strove to win time for the stabilisation of capitalism. In some areas it was the local SPD leaders who took the initiative in forming councils, in order to ensure they had control of them. The revolution brought demands for ‘socialisation’ (nationalisation under democratic control) so, as both a gesture towards this demand and as a way to sideline it, the RdV decided in mid-November to establish a committee to see which industries were ‘ripe’ for socialisation (needless to say nothing came out of this body). When the first National Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils opened in December Ebert declared that “the victorious proletariat will not institute class rule”.

Again learning lessons from the Russian revolution the SPD leaders sought to quickly minimise and then sideline the councils. The December National Congress of Councils did not really represent the forces, the workers, sailors and soldiers who made the November revolution; there were still many illusions in the SPD which its leadership exploited while using its apparatus to secure delegates. Only 187 out of the 489 delegates were wage or salaried workers while 195 delegates were full time party or trade union officials, the vast majority, 164, with the SPD. Officially the SPD had altogether 290 delegates, while the USPD had 90 delegates, about 10 of whom were Spartacists. Outside the USPD another 11 delegates supported the revolutionary Bremen Left. On this basis the SPD secured a 344 to 98 vote rejecting declaring a socialist republic and instead calling elections in January for a national assembly, with the clear aim of writing a constitution for a capitalist republic.

But the revolution was moving quickly, especially in Berlin and some other areas. Sections of workers, soldiers and sailors were, within weeks of the revolution’s start, frustrated and angered that the old regime and the capitalist system had not been completely finished off. At the end of November left-wing protesters in Berlin were shot at, and early December saw 14 killed in Berlin by government supporters firing on a revolutionary soldiers’ protest. Two days later there was an attack on the Spartacus daily paper, Die Rote Fahne, and an attempt to seize Liebknecht, which led to a 150,000-strong protest demonstration the next day.

Facing this radicalisation and growing support for the left, the SPD leaders attempted to reassert control. December 24 saw an attack on the People’s Naval Division (Volksmarinedivision), a force that originally had been sent to Berlin to safeguard the SPD but which had become increasing radicalised. After it had participated in a Spartacist-led demonstration and held hostage Otto Wels, an SPD leader, the government ordered that 80% of its forces be discharged. When the sailors refused this order the SPD sent other military units to attack them, resulting in the so-called ‘Bloody Christmas’ when the sailors successfully defended themselves.

This led to the final crisis in the SPD-USPD coalition, with the USPD People’s Commissars resigning on December 29 on the issue of the ‘Bloody Christmas’ and also the refusal of the SPD to implement the ‘Hamburg Points’, a programme for the army giving powers to the soldiers’ councils that had been agreed by the National Congress of Councils. The USPD commissars were replaced by three more SPD representatives including Gustav Noske who, becoming responsible for the army and navy, quickly began organising the military forces of counter-revolution, the Freikorps (many of whom later in the 1920s joined the Nazis). By the end of 1918 the SPD had begun to deploy Freikorp units near Berlin in preparation for a blow against the revolution.

Early hopes and illusions

IN ONE SENSE how the early stages of the German revolution unfolded was similar to that in Russia but, initially, at a much quicker pace.

The November revolution had resulted in councils taking effective power in a number of cities like Hamburg. In Bavaria a ‘council republic’ had been declared, while in Saxony a manifesto jointly issued by the councils of Dresden, Leipzig and Chemnitz declared that capitalism had collapsed and the working class had seized power. In some areas armed workers’ units were formed to protect the revolution.

Revolutions are characterised by the broad masses taking the stage and this was the case in Germany. Workers’ organisations grew extremely rapidly, partly as demobilised soldiers rejoined organisations but mainly because large sections of the working class took the first steps into activity. Trade union membership, 2.8 million in 1918, jumped to 7.3 million the next year. The SPD grew from 249,400 in March 1918 to over 500,000 a year later, while the left-wing USPD grew from 100,000 to 300,000 between November 1918 and February 1919.

This sudden increase initially tended to push the more active, radicalised layers into a minority, as the newly active tended to have more illusions and hopes in the SPD and trade union leaders. This was also the case in the early days of the Russian revolution when the Bolsheviks, despite being the largest workers’ party before February, became a minority in the soviets as support went to the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. But a combination of workers and peasants’ experience and the work of the Bolsheviks meant that within months they had regained majority support and were in a position to carry through the October revolution.

This was something that the SPD leaders desperately wanted to stop happening in Germany. Consciously, learning lessons from Russia, they acted to prevent a successful overthrow of capitalism. It was not only the working class movement that learnt from the Russian revolution, the counter-revolution also became more conscious.

Immediately after November Germany faced a situation of dual power. On the one hand the revolution had swept from power large parts of the old regime. For a few weeks at least the workers’, soldiers’ and sailors’ councils held real power, but this was not consolidated and the SPD leaders were working with the capitalists to neuter the councils and restore normal bourgeois government. But the SPD had to move very carefully because the revolutionary tide had not ebbed. Nevertheless, as happens in most revolutions, there came a time when sections of workers felt that their power was slipping away and the capitalist order was being re-imposed. In many cases, as in the ‘July Days’ in the Russian revolution, this can lead to spontaneous attempts to stop the revolution being rolled back. The SPD leaders were aware of this and moved to try to provoke the more radicalised workers into taking premature action, premature because the mass of workers had not yet drawn the same conclusions as they had.

In the Russian revolution the Bolsheviks had understood this and sought to provide a leadership and strategy that would prevent the more advanced activists being isolated and enable them to convince the mass of the working class and poor of the actions needed to complete the revolution. But at this time in Germany there was no equivalent force able to play the role that the Bolsheviks did.

The Spartacist League was formed only in mid-November 1918. Politically its leaders had a great standing in Germany. Karl Liebknecht, jailed after his May 1 1916 Berlin speech proclaiming “Down with the war. Down with the government”, had a huge prestige; Kautsky, the pre-war theoretical leader of the SPD, said he was “the most popular man in the trenches”. At this time the Spartacist League’s organisational strength was not clear; while it probably then had around 10,000 supporters its initial membership was a few thousand, although it started to grow quickly. From the outset there were debates within the Spartacists and the wider revolutionary left on how to work.

From the USPD’s foundation Luxemburg, Liebknecht and the Spartacists had been active in the new party while maintaining their own group and publications and this had continued during the revolution with, for example, a big debate in Berlin in mid-December on whether the USPD should remain in the coalition government.

Foundation of the Communist Party

At the same time there was another debate on whether the Spartacus, along with others working outside the USPD like the Bremen Left, should form a Communist Party. Luxemburg tended towards remaining in the still-growing USPD, at least until its next congress, while Liebknecht and others wanted to found a party immediately. While clearly an independent revolutionary party was necessary, it was also important to pay attention to what was happening inside the fast radicalising USPD. In fact later, in 1920, the Communist Party (KPD) became a truly mass force when it fused with the majority of the USPD.

But at that time there was a great deal of impatience amongst many German revolutionary socialists. This was because of a number of factors, especially the urgent need to complete the November revolution, and help Soviet Russia, by overthrowing capitalism in Germany. In addition there was tremendous growing hatred of the SPD leaders because of what they had done during the war, the role they were playing now in the revolution and, increasingly, the SPD leaders’ willingness to bloodily suppress opposition on their left.

It was against this background that when, at the very end of 1918, the KPD was founded, a majority decided, against the wishes of Luxemburg, Liebknecht and others, to abstain in the forthcoming elections to the national assembly. Unfortunately the majority did not see how, at that time, the elections to the assembly, the first ever fully democratic vote in German history, would have large support and that it was necessary for Marxists to use the elections to explain their position to those who would vote. At the same time the radicalisation in Berlin and some other areas led to an overestimation of the support then existing for another revolution to complete November’s. An illustration of this mood was when, on Christmas day, some Spartacists in Berlin published a paper which called for the immediate overthrow of the government and its replacement “by real Socialists, that is, by Communists”.

One feature of the German revolution was that it unfolded at a different pace around the country. In different areas there were repeated attempts by workers to take control into their hands, but there was no national force able to give direction to these attempts, including judging what the best timing was or how to consciously win nationwide support. Tragically, although the government was too weak to simultaneously crush all the movements, the counter revolution utilised the different speeds to move around Germany step-by-step, especially in early 1919, city-by-city. But at the start of 1919 Berlin was the key, as the ‘dual power’ situation there was unresolved.

In December the SPD government decided to organise a provocation in Berlin. Having gathered counter-revolutionary Freikorp troops outside the city, they ordered the removal of Berlin’s police chief, the USPD member Emil Eichhorn. The Berlin USPD, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and the KPD called a mass demonstration for January 5 to defend Eichhorn’s position. The success of that protest convinced some of the leaders that it was possible to overthrow the government and an ‘Interim Revolutionary Committee’ was established. In this committee Liebknecht, supported by the later East German leader Wilhelm Pieck, argued in defiance of KPD policy that it was “possible and necessary” now to overthrow the SPD government. The next day, January 6, saw a bigger demonstration of around 500,000 workers, many armed, but they waited for hours in the rain before dispersing, as the Revolutionary Committee was unable to give any proposals on what they should do.

This attempt to seize power was premature, falling for the SPD leaders’ provocation, who could picture it as an attack on the government, the councils’ majority and the forthcoming national assembly elections. It is probably the case that, on the January 5 protest, agent provocateurs encouraged the occupation of the offices of the SPD and bourgeois newspapers, not the most important immediate targets for a successful revolution, but a suitable target for the Freikorp troops. Although the revolutionary workers were probably strong enough to rule Berlin alone this was not the case in much of the rest of Germany, where illusions and hopes still existed in the SPD government. As was seen in other German cities in the following few months, at that time a victorious insurrection in Berlin would have probably been isolated and open to counter-revolutionary attack.

The first blows of the counter-revolution

On January 8 Noske’s troops began their offensive, politically dressing it up as a fight against ‘terrorism’. In a statement Noske, claiming to be defending the SPD’s history, said that he, “a worker, stands at the peak of power in the socialist republic”. The reality was brutally different. Noske was not joking when he said just before this battle “if you like, someone has to be the bloodhound. I won’t shy away from the responsibility”. Noske helped organise the Freikorps as a counter-revolutionary force one of whose tasks was to attempt to behead the revolution by killing the most well known Communists, Luxemburg and Liebknecht, and suppressing it in the capital, which was also then one of its most radicalised areas. Thus Liebknecht and Luxemburg were murdered by Freikorp officers on January 15, three days after the fighting had stopped.

But while this bloody defeat was a major blow against the revolution and the KPD in particular, it did not end the radicalisation of the Berlin proletariat. This was reflected only a week after the suppression of ‘the Spartacus uprising’ in the national assembly elections, with the left-wing USPD winning 27.6% in Berlin, compared with 7.6% nationally, while the SPD’s Berlin vote was 36.4%, compared with 37.9% nationally.

As the fighting in Berlin was coming to an end a council republic was proclaimed in Bremen and, after finishing in Berlin, Noske ordered Freikorp units to crush the movement there. But this in turn provoked mass strikes and fighting in the Ruhr, Rhineland and in Saxony and, at the beginning of March, a general strike and more fighting in Berlin. In other areas like Hamburg and Thuringia there was also a near civil war situation, while in Munich the council republic there was one of the last to fall, in early May.

The November revolution showed the colossal power of the working class in modern society. The German workers were able to overthrow the virtual military dictatorship which ruled the country during the war and the imperial regime. They created workers’ and soldiers’ councils across the country, poured into political parties and trade unions, and demanded ‘socialisation’. They had the possibility of taking power in their own right but were blocked by the role of the SPD, the party that had originally been established to overthrow capitalism. German capitalism was only able to survive in 1918 courtesy of the Social Democrat leaders and they bear a major responsibility for the history of the rest of the twentieth century.

Even when defeated in 1918-1919, the movement’s strength was strong enough to prevent the counter-revolution crushing all democratic rights. The counter-revolution had been forced to take a ‘democratic’ form, even sometimes dress itself in ‘socialist’ phraseology – for the time being.

This meant that there was still the opportunity for the KPD to learn from the experiences of the November revolution. Although capitalism survived this first round, the German revolution was not over as millions of workers moved to the left, stopped supporting the SPD and, by the end of 1920, made the KPD a truly mass force. However the tragedy is that when, after a series of heroic struggles, the KPD was able to get majority support from workers in 1923, it let the opportunity slip, with the disastrous consequences that instead of the world being completely transformed there was the rise of Stalinism, and then Hitler’s later victory, with all that those events meant for humanity.

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